Movie Analysis: “Back to the Future” – Themes

Another in our bi-weekly series in which we analyze movies currently in release. Why? To quote the writing mantra I coined over 5 years ago: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. You will note which one comes first. Here are my reflections from that post about the importance of watching movies:

To be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it's a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to 'get' how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it's like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Let me add this: It's important to see movies as they get released so that you stay on top of the business. Decisions get made in Hollywood in large part depending upon how movies perform, so watching movies as they come out puts you in the same head space as reps, producers, execs, and buyers.

This week's movie: Back to the Future, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.

IMDb plot summary: A young man is accidentally sent 30 years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, and must make sure his high-school-age parents unite in order to save his own existence.

Our schedule for discussion this week:

Monday: General Comments
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Takeaways

For those of you who have not seen the movie, do not click MORE as we will be trafficking in major spoilers. If you have seen BTTF, I invite you to join me in breaking down and analyzing the movie.

A couple of themes jump to mind immediately. Let’s start with the central conceit of the movie and its origins as recounted by co-writer Bob Gale:

"The inspiration for coming up with the story [Back to the Future] is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father's high-school yearbook in the basement. I'm thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there's a picture of my dad, 18-years-old… The question came up in my head, 'gee, what if I had gone to school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?' That was where the light bulb went off."

That is an interesting articulation of the story’s core concept as it’s broken down into two parts:

What if I had gone to school with my dad: This speaks to the plot of the story, the narrative device which puts father and son together at the same age.

Would I have been friends with him: This speaks to the meaning of the story and perhaps represents its central theme.

If we broaden the meaning of ‘friend’ to something like this — Do I like him… Do I understand him… Do I connect with him — safe to say that at the beginning of the movie, Marty would have considerable antipathy in answering those questions. He is so far different than his father… and his mother… and sister and brother. But especially his father George.

So Marty begins the story with a set of beliefs about his father. Enter his New World experience where he sees his father as an adolescent.

A peeping Tom. A frightened teenager. But most importantly, he sees George wildly enamored of Lorraine. In that dinner scene with Old George and Old Lorraine, there is none of that, George too busy watching some dumb TV show, virtually ignoring Lorraine’s recounting of how she and George met. Marty picked up zero passion from Old George toward Old Lorraine. But when George was an adolescent, Marty sees a young fellow crazy about Lorraine.

That passion – akin to what Marty has for Jennifer – is something Marty can relate to. Moreover seeing how Biff bullies George opens Marty’s eyes to the fact this behavior has been going on since George was a teen. Combined with the time Marty spends with George, attempting to cajole George to approach Lorraine, Marty comes to empathize with George… and in a way does become ‘friends’ with him.

A second theme at work in the movie: Courage vs. Fear. Marty is reluctant to put he and his band out into the world, to seek out a record deal because he’s afraid they – and in particular he – might not be good enough to cut it in the business. George has a similar thing going on: He is reluctant to express his feelings to Lorraine because he is afraid he might not be good enough to cut it with her.

In effect, the courage Marty sees George exhibit in confronting Biff and rescuing Lorraine is an object lesson to Marty about rising above his own fears and mustering up the courage to put his talent out there.

There are a lot of other themes in BTTF. Which ones speak to you? Join me in comments for more discussion of this wonderful movie!

Go Into The Story

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